Often while chatting with friends and students, questions about “what is exactly” or “what are fundamental characteristics” of Progressive Rock compositions comes up.
What I noticed is that many people think that the fundamental characteristics are just presence of Spare Time Signatures (or Odd Time Signatures) and a keyboard player who can play solos… Honestly I find this a wrong definition and also very reductive, so here is some (and I repeat SOME) of the “must have” in order to define a track Progressive Rock or Progressive Metal. With that said remember that music is ART, so it is CREATIVITY mostly and therefore rules are made to be followed and to be broken (when you’ve learned them really well and you became capable of mastering them!).
I will start my definition of what makes a track Progressive Rock (the music genre) by using an original set of rules analysed by Jerry Lucky in his book “The Progressive Rock Files” which I recommend to read as well as I recommend to read “Progressive Rock Reconsidered” by Kevin Holm-Hudson in order to get even more details and analysis about Prog Rock music.
So here they are, my personal re-elaboration of J.Lucky prog rock characteristics list:
1) Songs predominantly on the longish side, but structured, rarely improvised. Longish side usually means more than 4 minutes long.
2) A mixture of loud passages, soft passages and musical crescendos to add dynamics to the arrangements. This is a very important factor to distinguish between Prog Metal and what I call Technic Metal, for example, in fact the latter rarely presents dynamics (this is why I personally believe that bands like Mastodont are not progressive, they are technic metal).
3) The use of Mellotron, synthesizers and synthesised strings to simulate an orchestra backing.
4) The possible inclusion of live Symphony Orchestra backing or (at moments) becoming pre-dominant over the Rock music instruments (but never becoming predominant for the entire track).
5) Extended instrumental solos, perhaps involving some improvisation (improvisation never become enough to override the first point!).
6) The inclusion of musical form other than a rock format (songs should present some jazz, classical, folk, ethnic, electronica etc… elements, other than just Rock or Metal).
7) A blending of acoustic, electric and electronic instruments where each plays a VITAL ROLE in translating the EMOTION of compositions which typically contain MORE THAN ONE MOOD. In other words a prog song rarely starts with a mood and keep it for the entire evolution of the song, this is another reason why technical metal is different (deeply different) than progressive metal.
8) Multi-movement compositions that may or may not return to a musical theme. In some cases the end section may bear little resemblance to the first part of the song.
9) Compositions created from UNRELATED PARTS.
What we can deduct from these rules is that Progressive Rock and Progressive Metal are two music genres strictly orientated to MUSIC COMPOSITION, therefore they require exceptional compositional skills more than exceptional execution skills. The reason why Progressive Rock Metal bands present exceptional execution skills is a consequence of the extreme compositions they generally create.
In fact, in Prog Rock, compositional techniques like Counterpoint are brought to the extreme form where multiple instruments can play multiple “countrapunctual” melodies creating so incredible polyphonic compositions that may be consonant or dissonant at times or in alternance. Monophony in progressive rock is rare and when used is for specific reasons.
Also, Prog Rock is a music genre where compositions can move from typical tonal music to modal music to even atonal music, while purely execution-orientated genres focus more on the execution perse, so, as an example, technical metal puts more focus on the shredding of the guitars or the speed and clearness at which obbligato passages are executed by the whole band as well as the sound impact of unisons and other techniques more typical of tech-metal etc…
So, WHEN a track is progressive? Well when the track presents the majority if not all the points discussed.
Hope this post will help to clarify the differences and the characteristics of a music genre that is still gathering, after many decades, attentions of the public and of musicians world-wide.
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